More Canucks 5, Blackhawks 1

     A Sunday story in the Vancouver Sun following Saturday’s 5-1 Vancouver win over Chicago in an NHL second-round playoff series:

By Iain MacIntyre, Vancouver Sun columnist, May 1, 2010, Comments (73)

CHICAGO — Just like their last playoff game here, the Vancouver Canucks poured five goals past the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday. But Vancouver’s goaltending improved by a touchdown.

In possibly his best game in three months, and in the building where he was ventilated in a 7-5 loss that ended the Canucks’ season last May and left him him in tears, netminder Roberto Luongo was brilliant and so were his teammates as Vancouver hammered Chicago 5-1 to open the teams’ second-round National Hockey League playoff series.

Luongo stopped all 17 shots he faced in the first period, when the game was decided, and finished with 36 saves. And for one night, at least, he offered compelling evidence that the Canucks’ potential advantage in goal this series is more than theoretical.

Chicago goalie Antti Niemi, the unheralded Finn who lifted the Hawks’ starting job this season from the weak hands of Cristobal Huet, was pulled after five goals and 40 minutes.

“It was nice to start that way since I hadn’t played since Sunday,” Luongo said. “It was a good start. That being said, it was only one game. We need to refocus right away. They came out strong, but we were able to contain them early on. They got a power play right away, and I was able to make a few saves.”

Canuck defenceman Kevin Bieksa said: “I think he played probably his best game of the playoffs. He was very solid. It’s a lot of confidence for us. We’re a good team. When our goaltending is like that it makes us a very good team and tough to beat. We know Roberto will stop everything he sees, so we just control their sticks and rebounds like we did tonight.”

It was more than Luongo’s best game of the playoffs. It was probably his best game since a prolonged stretch of inconsistency began Jan. 30 in Toronto. Several times since then, Luongo expressed frustration at his inability to go more than two or three games without a poor performance.

Concern about the Canucks’ goaltending deepened when he was hooked after allowing four goals in the first half of Game 3 of the first round against the Los Angeles Kings.

But since Game 4 of that series, Luongo has been excellent. Saturday made four strong performances in a row.

The Canucks didn’t score in the first 10 minutes, but it might have been the most important stretch of the game.

With the Blackhawks charged by the most electrifying anthem in pro sports, the Canucks managed to force the game into the Chicago end for several of the early shifts. When the Blackhawks were able to attack, Luongo demonstrated his best form since January. And the Canucks killed an early penalty, another excellent sign given their near-catastrophe shorthanded against Los Angeles.

Blackhawk sniper Patrick Kane also missed a mostly-open net on a rebound from a sharpish angle.

Less than two minutes later, the Canucks began their offensive onslaught with Christian Ehrhoff’s goal at 13:51. The defencemen scored on a 40-foot wrister — Niemi may have been screened by teammate Patrick Sharp — after Canuck Mason Raymond did an excellent job holding the puck and protecting it along the boards from Blackhawk Brent Sopel.

Raymond, who had been robbed by Niemi on an early rebound, deflated the Blackhawks and their fans with a goal at 19:49. Actually, Niemi was more responsible for the deflation, propelling the rebound from Ryan Kesler’s easy shot straight up the slot, where Raymond stepped into it.

There was probably a lively intermission discussion in the Blackhawk dressing room, and Chicago should have exploded forward with the start of the second period. Instead, they imploded.

Thirty-two seconds into the first shift, Daniel Sedin calmly gathered the puck after a stellar save by Niemi, then centred to brother Henrik for a conversion so quick the Blackhawk netminder had no way to recover.

Kyle Wellwood then snuck in behind Chicago defenceman Brent Seabrook to sweep in a loose puck and make it 4-0 on a power play at 10:59. And at 16:21 of the middle period, the Canucks’ fourth line got itself on the scoresheet to make it 5-0 when Rick Rypien excellently set up Michael Grabner on a 2-on-1 sprung by linemate Jannik Hansen, who sidestepped Chicago defenceman Jordan Hendry’s wild charge at the Vancouver blue line.

Huet replaced Niemi in the third period, and the Blackhawks finally got a goal during a two-man advantage at 2:07 when Luongo spilled the puck for a Kane tap-in after making a good save on Jonathan Toews.

But there was no late Chicago charge, even physically. The Blackhawks looked dispirited. They were well-beaten. Luongo was too good, stopping Kane on a breakaway, John Madden on a 2-on-1 and Brian Campbell on a point-blank redirection — all saves made when the game was still in doubt.

“No matter the score, it’s just a win,” Vancouver defenceman Shane O’Brien said. “You need four of them to win a series. We’re going to get their best effort next game I’m sure. Whether it’s 2-1 or 5-1, it’s only one win and we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

But the work is far less daunting when Luongo plays the way he did Saturday.